Wednesday, April 23, 2008


By any measure, Fiorello LaGuardia was an extraordinary man. Son of immigrants, an Italian father and Jewish mother, he was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village; spent his boyhood as an army brat in Arizona; as a young man, in the American consular service in Europe, became fluent in Hungarian, German, Serbo-Croatian, Yiddish and Italian; studied law at night at New York University; entered practice and politics among the poor of the Lower East Side as a Republican (he disdained the Tammany-led Democrats, who dominated City politics). Yet, with two meritorious interruptions, he served in the House of Representatives from 1917 to 1932, mostly as a Republican, and as the only Eastern urbanite to work closely with the progressive legislators from the Mid- and Far-West. His biographer Arthur Mann explains his easy electability this way: “the multilingual, western-bred, Balkan-plated Episcopalian of Italian-Jewish descent started with the advantage of being a balanced ticket in himself.”

A freshman in 1917, he voted for the declaration of war against Germany and promptly took leave to enlist in the fledgling Army Air Corps, serve as a pilot-bombardier on the Austro-Italian front, and emerge as a decorated major, a title he cherished privately quite as much as later he would cherish mayor.

Re-elected in 1918, he shortly resigned to become president of the New York City Board of Alderman, succeeding Al Smith, who had just been elected Governor. In 1920 he returned to the House, now representing another poor district, East Harlem, that would keep him in the House for five successive terms, mostly as a Republican. But in the 1924 election he bolted the Party, supported LaFollette’s Progressive Party ticket, and ran as a Progressive himself. In 1926 he was back in the Republican column.

A Republican representing poor constituents, it was inevitable that he be at constant odds with his Party’s pro-business, pro-industry programs. Throughout his career in the House he was a maverick, an insurgent, a nonpartisan. He himself said, “I am doomed to live in a hopeless minority most of my legislative days.”

Norris’s Representative

LaGuardia was surprisingly effective for a maverick. He was Senator Norris’s man in the House, working mightily – but unsuccessfully – to prevent his colleagues from approving acceptance of Henry Ford’s offer to operate the plants and dams of Muscle Shoals that would later become the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority, leaving Norris to stall acceptance in the Senate. More successfully, he managed House approval of the counterpart of Norris’s bill against anti-labor injunctions, which also outlawed the “yellow dog contract”. It was to become the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, the most far-reaching piece of pro-labor legislation until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Soaking the Rich

In 1932 he also won his most spectacular victory. When, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Hoover administration, desperate for revenue to balance the budget, included in its Revenue Bill provision for a national sales tax, LaGuardia exploded. Yet it seemed quixotic to challenge the proposed tax. The odds he faced were formidable: Democratic Speaker John Nance Garner declared the bill to be the “financial salvation of my country” and prepared to fight for it in the House where, per the Constitution, “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate”; the Ways and Means Committee reported the bill favorably by a vote of 24-1; much of the press lauded it; it seemed headed for easy passage. But when the debate began on the floor of the House on March 10th, LaGuardia attacked the sales tax head-on as notoriously regressive, falling most heavily on the poor. In the two-week debate that followed – “some of the stormiest sessions in the history of Congress” according to biographer Thomas Kessner – LaGuardia was ever-present, crunching peanuts, speaking eloquently, charging that the tax was a covert plot to ultimately phase out the income tax as the sales tax took over revenue-raising. Coming close to demagoguery, he repeatedly shouted his mantra “Soak the rich!”, who had benefited most from Hoover’s tax cut of 1929.

His fight brought instant national publicity, much of it denouncing him, some of it scurrilous, calling him – in that era before political correctness – “a product of the steerage and Ellis Island” and as “alien in mind and spirit from Americanism.” Bernard Baruch, the Democratic economic doyen, cajoled him to relent. But he persisted. Slowly, but steadily, public and legislative opinion began moving his way. By the second week, party discipline on both sides of the aisle began to break down. The administration offered compromise: it would exclude from the tax food, clothing, medicines and farm equipment; but momentum had by then swung so decisively behind LaGuardia that he rejected compromise. On March 24th, the House defeated the sales tax by a vote of 211 to 178. Wrote Heywood Broun, a famous columnist of the day, “Not within our time has an individual won such a striking legislative victory.” LaGuardia seems to have tapped into the swelling despair of the country that soon was to sweep the Republicans from power.


As a Congressman LaGuardia pursued a range of issues that, in the words of biographer Kessner, “would have felled another man.” He derided the hypocrisy of Prohibition, and in December 1932 both Houses approved the 21st Amendment, repealing it. He denounced the immigration laws as discriminatory, and weighed in on issues without number. Kessner wrote:
Literally hundreds of issues landed on the desk of this “one-man grievance committee of the nation.” None was shoved aside. Work expanded into the night, weekends, and holidays to keep up with everything. He gave up even his part-time lawyering as the volume of his obligations became too heavy; he never gave to his personal finances the careful attention that he reserved for the national pocketbook. His small staff was always swamped, and when he could not cajole a staffer to work on weekends he would draft (his wife) to do some typing.
A model of rectitude, when offered a retainer to represent a labor union, he responded, “For twenty years I have been helping Organized Labor without being retained in my professional capacity and I hope to be able to continue doing so.”

Ironic “Lame Duck”

In the 1932 campaign that was to sweep FDR into the White House and the Democrats into control of Congress, LaGuardia, who had done so much to bring it about, incredibly lost to a relative unknown in the Republican primary. In one of the ironies of history, he who had pushed for Norris’s Twentieth Amendment in the House, found himself a “lame duck” in the last “lame duck session” of Congress before that Amendment kicked in. It is a measure of his stature, however, that when FDR, as president-elect, sent his braintruster Adolf A. Berle to Washington to give his New Deal legislation an early start, it was LaGuardia whom Berle tapped to introduce the bills in the House.

Before 1933 was out, the “lame duck” had been elected Mayor of New York City, and was on his way to fame and immortality. Washington’s loss had become Gotham’s gain. In 1959 he was fondly remembered on Broadway in Fiorello, George Abbott’s rollicking musical of those years of reform of metropolitan politics.

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